Study Finds Significantly Increased Risk of Brain Cancer in Gulf War Veterans Exposed to Demolition of Stored Chemical Weapons

Although no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were found in Iraq this time around, the same cannot be said of the 1991 Gulf War.  In fact, in March of that year, two large ammunition caches, including rockets, were blown up by American soldiers in Khamisiyah, Iraq.

At the time, it was assumed these munitions were simply conventional explosives. Following the operation, military personnel who had been present in the area showed no signs of chemical exposure.

Unfortunately, when the area was examined by U.N. weapons inspectors, it was discovered that some of the weapons that had been detonated had contained the deadly neurotoxin, sarin.

Sarin is a man-made chemical warfare nerve agent.  Nerve agents are the most toxic and rapidly acting of the known chemical warfare agents. Sarin is a clear, colorless, and tasteless liquid that has no odor in its pure form. In sufficient concentrations, exposure to sarin can result in convulsions and death.

On March 20, 1995, for the first time, terrorists used a chemical warfare agent (sarin) against a civilian population by releasing it in the Tokyo subway system causing over 5500 people to seek medical attention.

As a result of the discovery in Iraq, some 300,000 veterans who were in the general area of the demolition operation have been contacted by the military. Due to wind patterns at the time, the “hazard area” extended as far as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Of the 325,467 veterans deployed in Iraq, it was determined that 100,487 could have been exposed to some extent to the hazard area while 224,980 had not been exposed to the risk.

The study, commissioned by the military and published in the August issue of American Journal of Public Health, was conducted by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). The IOM advises the federal government on health policy.
While, for most diseases, the two groups showed no difference in mortality rates, the one exception was for death from brain cancer where the differences were remarkable.

In the exposed group, the risk of death from brain cancer was 200% that found in the unexposed group. Moreover, a one-day exposure to the chemical munitions increased the risk by 72% while an exposure of two or more days increased the risk by 226%.

While the risks in the unexposed group (12/100,000) and the exposed group (25/100,000) were both small, a 200% increase is nonetheless considered significant by experts. In fact, the study was referred to as “very solid” by Professor Faith Davis of the University of Illinois-Chicago who stated: “It needs to be taken seriously.”

Some experts are intrigued by the apparent link between only one or two days of exposure and so large an increase in brain cancer mortality while others see it as having value in the search for the causes of brain tumors, a subject which, to a great extent, remains a medical mystery. In fact, sarin has never been shown to cause cancer.

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